West German’s Resignation Leaves a Trail of Sorrow and Bitterness

Philip Jenninger shifted over the weekend from public remorse to a bluntly defensive stance, following his resignation Friday from the presidency of the Bundestag.

He complained bitterly in interviews published here Saturday that it was no longer possible to speak the truth. In Germany today, “you can’t call things by name,” he said.

He was referring to the stunning speech he delivered in the Bundestag Thursday, which many interpreted to be a justification of the Nazi regime.

His remarks were all the more shocking because of the nature of the forum. He spoke at a solemn special session of the lower house of the West German parliament commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

As disbelief at what they were hearing turned to revulsion, more than 50 deputies rose and walked out of the chamber.

They included not only the opposition Social Democrats and Greens but members of Jenninger’s Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party.

Jenninger, a ranking member and rising star of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s governing CDU, seemed bewildered by the furious reactions to his speech.

He resigned Friday under fire in the Federal Republic and abroad.

JEWS PRESENT IN CHAMBER

In a statement read for him by the Bundestag’s vice president, Annemarie Renger, Jenninger said he was shaken by the response and it weighed heavily on his conscience.

He claimed his speech was misunderstood and that his auditors did not grasp his intention, which was to explain why the German people so ardently embraced Hitler.

Among those in the chamber at the time were Heinz Galinski, a Holocaust survivor who is chairman of the Central Council of Jews in West Germany, and the Israeli ambassador to Bonn, Yitzhak Ben-Ari.

Also present was the president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsacker, widely hailed for the heartfelt eloquence with which he has acknowledged Germany’s guilt for its dark past.

Jenninger maintained in his speech that the Germans accepted Hitler because he transformed the country from a defeated nation into a feared and respected world power.

He said Germans agreed that the Jews had “risen above their station” and had to be “put in their place.”

He argued that anti-Semitism was a phenomenon of long standing in Europe, hardly the invention of Germany, and that National Socialist ideas were common long before Hitler.

He also appeared to express understanding for Germans who would rather suppress memories of the Nazi past and concentrate on rebuilding their country from the ruins of war.

Observers predicted that Jenninger’s speech will become a major political issue in the days and weeks ahead. Demands for his resignation became moot when he stepped down, voluntarily but obviously under intense pressure from those concerned with the government’s image abroad.

As soon as he resigned, the government and opposition parties welcomed his move. Chancellor Kohl issued a statement praising Jenninger for his achievements and insisted that he really held deep feelings of friendship and respect for the Jews.

Surprisingly, Jenninger found a defender among the members of the Central Council of Jews in West Germany Michael Fuerst said there was no reason to demand his resignation.

According to Fuerst, the speaker had simply acknowledged that the German people followed Hitler blindly because of his initial successes.

JEWISH GROUPS EXPRESS REGRET

Chairman Galinski maintained, on the other hand, that Jenninger’s resignation was the “natural consequence” of his speech.

Reactions from American Jewish organizations seemed expressions of sorrow more than anger.

In New York, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said Jenninger’s remarks were “insensitive and wrong, since they were interpreted as a justification of Hitler’s rise to power.”

Foxman added that the speech “was all the more regrettable since Mr. Jenninger has a record of sympathy and support for the Jewish people and for Israel.”

Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress, said Jenninger was “trying to explain the state of mind of many Germans during the early ’30s without justifying or condoning that state of mind.”

But, he added, “such understanding must be expressed in a way that does not lessen outrage and condemnation,” Lifton said.

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